I recently watched Manchester by the Sea, which won the award for Best Screenplay, starring Casey Affleck, which he won a Best Actor Academy Award. It was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan who also wrote Gangs of New York.
The plot is fairly straight forward. (Spoiler Alerts) Lee Chandler (Affleck) has experienced a horrible tragedy losing his family. He is more than depressed and has completely checked out of life. He now works as a janitor for minimum wage and living quarters which is a small, one-room, basement apartment in Boston. The only time he feels anything is when he drinks too much and then picks unnecessary fights with strangers. Prior to this he was life-loving, loved his wife and kids, and spent glorious times with his brother, Joe, and nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), on their fishing boat. Since the tragedy, he has cut off just about everything and everyone from his previous life. The only tether is to his brother, Joe, who won’t allow Lee to totally cut him off.
When Lee had left town, Patrick was a young boy. Now he is a 16 and firmly entrenched in the Manchester community with multiple friends and activities. His dream is to take over his dad’s boat. Lee has trouble with the responsibility thrust upon him but more importantly he struggles with the pain and memories of his past, told through flashbacks. Patrick refuses to leave Manchester and move to Boston to live with his uncle. Patrick is also in contact with his estranged mother, who has dried out, and arranges a meeting with her. However, it doesn’t go well.
I thought this movie was very well written, directed, shot, and acted. It is not an uplifting story but more similar to the movie Ordinary People. While the ending doesn’t have some incredible redemption or uplifting message, it does give just a glimmer of hope. Lee is heart-broken and in pain. Everyone he has loved has either left or been taken from him. He loved Patrick as a son but fears more pain if he allows himself to get too close. Why should he? He will just suffer more pain and it is easier to be numb. Dealing with numb people is very frustrating because you feel like just shaking them really hard with a couple of good slaps to wake them from their stupor. However, it is a very effective defense mechanism. What makes this movie uplifting is Lee is going to try. It isn’t much but it is a sliver of an opening. He tells Patrick that he can’t move back. That is different from won’t. He wants to be there for Patrick but it is too painful. However, he wants to be in Patrick’s life. Initially, Patrick doesn’t understand primarily because he is self-centered teenager but at the end he matures a little and accepts what Lee will give him. More than accepts-he embraces it. This is growth, maturity, and reality. Healing from a tragedy like they have endured is in small steps. And as each small step is met with a positive outcome, it makes it easier to make the next one. Also, if the small step doesn’t work it is small enough that you can try again. Patrick is forced to grow up too fast but has people in his life who want to help and support him. Lee made sure the foundations are in place. Patrick’s wants are egocentric but not unreasonable. Lee cannot take on the responsibility and possible pain of being Patrick’s father. However, he can be his friend and eventually perhaps his uncle again.
I haven’t seen the other movies where actors were also up for an award, but Casey does a great job going back and forth between the two different lives. Personally, I think Casey is a better actor than his brother and he continues to improve. In addition, he generally favors smaller, more intimate movies rather than big block busters. This may have to do with personality differences between the two brothers. Before Matt Damon went off the deep end, he gave an interesting interview. He stated that after he and Ben became famous, Matt had trouble dealing with the fame. He married a non-celebrity woman and they have 3 children. They tend to keep their private life out of the lime-light. According to Matt, Ben is just the opposite. He thrives in the public eye and doesn’t seem to let negative press about his private life bother him. We may be trying to judge Casey against his brother, which probably isn’t fair to either.